The Minnesota court system’s leader says she fears state residents will feel an impact if legislative budget proposes become law.
Chief Justice Lorie Gildea of the Minnesota Supreme Court said she does not want to return to the days when criminals were set free because courts could not wade through cases quickly enough.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” the Plummer native said, recalling tough budget times in 2011 when some criminal cases were stalled so long that suspects were released.
In the same period of time, some courts were closed to the public because of lack of money.
Legislative budget proposals this year would hurt the judiciary, Gildea said Friday, April 21, in a Forum News Service interview. She said they threaten the courts’ constitutional responsibility to “provide justice to all Minnesotans.”
While the Republican-controlled House and Senate each would provide more money to the courts than they receive in the current two-year budget, each falls millions of dollars short of what court officials say is needed.
The situation is so serious to Gildea that on Thursday she broke with tradition, becoming what may have been the first chief justice ever to testify to a House-Senate conference committee. That committee is composed of legislators who will negotiate how much will be spent for public safety and judiciary programs.
“When everything else breaks down, the courts are where people come for justice,” she said.
The budget discussion comes at a time when more cases are being filed in state courts. Gildea said major criminal case filings are up 12 percent from last year and drug cases have soared 25 percent.
“Please understand that there are real consequences to your constituents and to all of our communities in these budget decisions,” she told lawmakers. “Public safety is jeopardized when we do not have a fully functioning judiciary.”
Legislative leaders said they respect Gilea and her judicial colleagues, but there are money constraints.
“We have to make decisions and sometimes you have to prioritize,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said. “Sometimes it means that people get 75 percent of their request, not 100 percent.”
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he wanted to meet with Gildea again to discuss the budget.
It will be the third Gazelka-Gildea meeting this session, although the chief justice has been in more than 70 private meetings with legislators this year.
“Perhaps the third time will be a charm,” Gildea said.
She already has Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s full support.
“I stressed again the importance of funding chief justice’s full request,” he said he told Daudt and Gazelka during a Thursday meeting.
Gildea, the governor said, “has been very fiscally responsible.”
The chief justice said that regardless of how good a job courts do with limiting spending, there are some things that need more money.
The biggest funding increase request is $42 million for pay and related expenses, which would include a 3.5 percent a year pay raise for judges and other court employees.
A five-year pay freeze kept court workers’ pay below other government employees, Gildea said, and her branch of government loses workers to other goverment jobs and the private sector.
Pay for judges also is lower than in many other states, and Gildea that is a factor in a decreasing number of applicants for judicial openings.
So far, she said, the lack of applicants has not affected the quality of Minnesota judges.
Still, she added, “I think it is a concern. I think we have to pay very close attention to it.”
Gildea also seeks money to add two district court judges and their staffs, to provide services such as psychological examinations and interpreters and to improve cybersecurity.
The court budget also calls for $3.4 million of added funds to continue speciality courts that deal with drug charges, veterans, mental health patients and drunken driving issues. Court officials say those courts prevent many people from reoffending.
The state Judicial Council met Thursday to begin discussing what can be done if the full court budget request is not funded.
Decisions would need to be made by July 1, when the new budget begins.
Despite the end of the Legislature coming in a month, Gildea said she is hopeful there is time to make changes. “I understand that in the life of the legislative process, it is early.”
Here is a comparison of Minnesota two-year court budget proposals.
— Current: $665 million
— Court wants: $736 million
— House proposes: $701 million
— Senate proposes: $692 million
— Expected total state budget: $46 billion